Future of Pier 70 Noonan Building Artists Still Being Sketched
Waves gently crash onto the rocks at Pier 70, a chain link fence separating people from fish. The pier, at 150 years old the country’s longest working civilian shipyard, is the centerpiece of a twenty year process of ‘reconnecting the City with its Waterfront.’ As part of this process the pier will be almost completely redeveloped, with many less historic structures torn down, and a large number of new buildings constructed.
Pier 70 is adjacent to Dogpatch, a neighborhood quilted together with Victorian residences and massive industrial relics from the days when Union Iron Works, Bethlehem Steel, Pacific Rolling Mills and the Spreckels Sugar refinery lined the waterfront. Dogpatch has long possessed the creative, DIY spirit, exemplified by resident workers building Pelton Cottages in the late-1880s, some of the City’s first ‘affordable’ housing units, constructed from design specifications published for free in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin. By the 1970s, the semi-abandoned and forgotten Dogpatch had been transformed again, this time, by an influx of artists, crafters and small businesses relocating for cheap deals, attracted by a unique mix of gritty character and still active shoreline.
The Noonan Building is Pier 70’s only surviving, wood-frame structure. For the past several decades it has hosted artist studios, with modest rents paid to the San Francisco Port. Noonan artists were active in the community outreach phase of the Pier 70 development conducted by the City and County of San Francisco, the Port and the pier’s developer, Forest City. And Kim Austin, Suzy Bernard, Marti McKee, and other Noonan artists were present at a Port Commission meeting last spring, when Forest City presented their proposed development plan. “Forest City said, point blank, we weren’t included in the Plan at all. Red flags went up for sure,” said Bernard.
In the Term Sheet of Forest City’s Pier 70 Preferred Master Plan the Noonan Building was slated for demolition, rather than restoration The Term Sheet sets forth the development agreement between Forest City and the Port while the environmental review process is underway. “We finally woke up,” said McKee, a San Franciscan-born-and-raised artist. “It was shocking, the whole pitch is arts and culture, so who do they exclude after two years of planning but the very artists who are in the building? The Noonan Building would be the only building representing the very long history of arts here at the Pier 70. Forest City envisions demolishing the Noonan, and no, we are not comfortable with it.”
At the Port Commission meeting Austin asked why the Noonan Building, originally built in 1941 – within the period deemed ‘historically significant’ in the Master Plan – is slated for demolition. And Austin expressed skepticism related to Forest City’s claims that the Noonan Building was ‘beyond repair,’ and ‘too expensive to restore.’
According to Forest City’s Jack Sylvan, “The Noonan Building was not listed as one of those historic structures, and it’s not a building that will remain. But it will be replaced by something. The Noonan Building tenants will have access to new space, in a new structure.”
Noonan Building artists, or at least the crafts and activities they pursue, seem like a natural fit for the re-envisioned pier. The public-private, Port-Forest City, venture imagines Pier 70 as a mixed-use, thriving ‘urban ecosystem’ of residential and ‘emerging economy’ creative, technology and bio-medicine commercial tenants, anchored by an active street-level bustling of restaurants, storefronts, and entertainment. “We went through an extensive learning process, conducting local focus groups and workshops,” said Sylvan. Forest City’s website states that the Master Plan was carved out from five years of interviews with ‘hundreds of people in urban communities, focusing on creative industries and emerging economy sectors.’
Last summer, Forest City organized the Urban Air Market, an opportunity for the developer to present its Master Plan publicly. Along with 150 other vendors, the Noonan Building artists were present, sharing their work and engaging the community. “The Urban Air Market was the first opportunity to test the urban economic ecosystem,’ said Sylvan, who walked the market with Mayor Ed Lee.
According to Bernard, the Urban Art Market sparked a greater sense of camaraderie among local artisans, and ideas about how Noonan Building artists can contribute to the larger San Francisco community. “We can see how a gallery, or, educational workshop, is a positive offering to the public, and, a way to give back for the affordable space. At the same time, it’s really important to recognize many artistic mediums require large, light-filled, quiet spaces, with uninterrupted time, involving important elements of the creative process that might not yield an immediate product. I think it’s valuable to honor that creativity too, I think this type of artistic activity still benefits the larger community and City.”
According to Sylvan, there’s plenty of time for continued community input about the development while the environmental impact review process unfolds over the next three years. “What’s typical in a long-term planning project is to present a concept plan to the policy makers and community at the halfway point, with the plan detailing the developer’s vision for the site. So, rather than wait until the end of the planning process, we present the plan to both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors to get a thumbs up we’re moving in the right direction, which is the basis for the environmental review, and, in the next stage, we firm up details for land use planning, design, and negotiation of the actual business deal with the Port.”
Given the artists’ historic presence at Pier 70 Forest City is committed to assuring “a range of rents, from market rate, to creative tenants like the Noonan Building,” said Sylvan. “We have made a commitment to the folks who are in the Noonan Building, of being able to participate in the next itineration of the place in the new building or space that is created out on the site, even if we don’t know what that looks like yet.”
McKee believes the Noonan should be part of the new ecosystem. “For Forest City to get the tax subsidies that come with developing a historic district there have to be enough buildings within the whole project deemed historic to be eligible so, we are hoping we can sway the developer to reconsider and keep the Noonan Building.”
“We unified, made our feelings known…we are talking about the demolition of the Noonan Building happening some seven to 10 years down the road, will there still be people fighting? Will I still be here?” asked Bernard. “We are starting a new chapter going forward. We are cautious, but, we are happy to be in good communications, and making progress, with Forest City.”
“We’re in it for the future artists, not even so much for ourselves. There needs to be spaces, and the inclusion of the local history of artist’s collectives, whether it’s like Hunters Point, which is organized, or the Noonan Building’s historic use as artist studios,” said McKee. “We know San Francisco is like many places grappling with these larger questions. These types of places need to stay intact, because pretty soon there is going to be no space in San Francisco, it’s just too expensive.”
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